116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As his district last summer prepared for a visit from federal investigators, Superintendent David Benson told the Cedar Rapids school board he expected the investigators to find disparities.
The September 2014 visit was part of an inquiry based on a complaint of racial discrimination in the Cedar Rapids Community School District's discipline practices conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). But on Aug. 15, Benson told board members the investigators likely would discover other disparities as well.
'I expect the OCR to find disparate treatment of African-American Students in Graduation Rate, Rates of Suspension, Rates of Identification in the Gifted Program, and Rates of Identification in Special Education,' Benson wrote in an email to board members. 'All of these areas have been reported to the Board over my tenure.'
Benson this week said he knew the investigators would find the disparities because they had requested the data that would show them. The investigators visited Cedar Rapids the week of Sept. 22.
But, he said, 'Disparate treatment in the data does not equate to discrimination. I think some of it deals with the cultural competency of the adults (in the schools) that are working with the various segments of our community.'
He added that the district is working on that issue.
Investigators can look into any disparities they find, Benson explained — not just the one to which the investigation initially relates.
Benson's final day before his retirement as superintendent will be June 30. Brad Buck, current Iowa Department of Education director, takes over July 1.
District administrators and principals last September played down the investigation to teachers and parents. Emails released by the district show principals — in coordination with the district office — told staff and parents that the investigation was 'routine' and not an indication of wrongdoing.
Principals in emails also stated incorrectly that no school had been named in the December 2013 complaint that led to the districtwide investigation. The complaint in fact named Washington High School.
'We understand this to be a routine investigation prompted by a complaint related to disparity in student discipline,' Kennedy High School principal Jason Kline wrote to his staff on Sept. 4. 'No individual or school has been named in the complaint; this complaint is against the district. As a school district, we are cooperating fully with the OCR.'
Principals whose schools were visited by the investigators de-emphasized their schools' selection.
'Eight schools were selected at random for the Office of Civil Rights to visit,' Taft Middle School principal Gary Hatfield wrote Sept. 8 in a form letter to be sent to some parents. 'I want to state again that Taft being selected is in no way an indication that Taft is 'in trouble' or that we have done anything wrong.'
Hatfield said Friday that describing the schools' selection as random 'might have been a poor choice of words,' but he didn't believe the discrimination complaint related to Taft.
An OCR spokesman this week did not directly answer how schools are selected for visits. Washington High School was among the schools investigators visited.
During their visits to schools, the investigators interviewed staff and students. School staff members were allowed to select students for interviews, with their parents' permission.
Hatfield in a Sept. 3 email also asked Taft staff to keep information about the investigation confidential.
'Do not forward it or discuss it with people outside of Taft,' he wrote. 'At some point, this information will become public, but until that time, it will make our lives and the education of our students easier if we keep this information to ourselves. I don't want the information below to become a distraction to the great work you do every day with students.'
[naviga:h3 class="hide-650"]Selected emails from Cedar Rapids school administrators
In preparing for the investigators' visit, the district also held two legal counseling sessions for principals and staff members.
Principals were invited to ask questions and receive guidance on Sept. 3 on a questionnaire the investigators asked them to fill out. At least one administrator from each building was required to attend.
Staff members who were to be interviewed by the investigators also were offered legal counsel at an optional Sept. 17 session. The district offered to pay staff members who attended for their time.
Benson this week said it was important for staff to understand the magnitude of the investigation and have their questions answered about any liability.
The district or its attorneys did not tell employees what to say in the questionnaires or interviews, Benson said.
'It wasn't coaching — we don't do that,' he said.
The district spent more than $3,100 in legal fees complying with and preparing for the investigation, according to an invoice from one of the law firms involved.
Amy Reasner of the Cedar Rapids law firm Lynch Dallas was paid $2,848 for about 18 hours of work.
The district's other main attorney during the investigation, Terry Abernathy of Pickens, Barnes & Abernathy, was paid through the district's insurance company, EMC Insurance. The district wouldn't confirm how much he was paid for work in connection with the investigation.
Addressing the problem
District administrators have said throughout the investigation that they are addressing racial disparities in Cedar Rapids schools with a long list of programs. Those include behavioral instruction, after-school programs and staff training.
The district also has contracted with Edwin Javius, founder of EdEquity, a California-based school equity consultant, to help it improve staff members' cultural competency and classroom practices.
The contract is dated Jan. 23, 2014 — the day after the OCR first notified the district of its investigation. It was signed by board secretary Laurel Day on Feb. 24.
The contract calls for Javius to be paid an initial sum of $30,000, plus travel expenses. That covers the end of the 2013-14 school year and all of 2014-15, said deputy superintendent Mary Ellen Maske.
Javius quoted the district $78,000 to $93,000 for the 2015-16 school year. Maske said that will be negotiated.
A third year could be added, she said.
At Roosevelt Middle School this week, Javius led school and district administrators on a walk-through of the school's classrooms to observe teacher-student interactions in terms of equity and engagement.
The goal, Roosevelt Principal Autumn Pino said, is 'to meet every student where they are.'
'I don't think we're there yet,' Pino said, but the school is improving.
The group identified areas of positive practice in a few classrooms, including teachers who geared questions toward students' identities.
In one classroom, however, administrators watched a student Javius described as a 'high flyer' in the school's discipline system.
'That kid's guessing every period' about how to behave because different teachers have different disciplinary styles, he said. 'And guessing wrong.'
Part of the district's approach to discipline, Javius said, should be consistency between classrooms, 'so that kids don't have to guess.'